Stephen Colbert Offers Intellectual and Moral Clarity in Response to Trump

Stephen Colbert appears to have found his groove at the Late Show. In the video below, he tears apart Donald Trump’s unhinged press conference. While self-loathing progressives and mushy moderates worry that comedians mocking Trump’s flagrant ignorance and evisceration of democratic norms is somehow undermining their farcical, one-sided attempts at generating dialogue with people who defend the indefensible, Colbert is choosing to do his best to offer the intellectual and moral clarity that is needed at this moment in American history. He is behaving like a comedian, citizen, and patriot should—delivering laughs while defending factual reality and the highest American ideals. Instead of criticizing comedians who refuse to intentionally placate or indulge the willful ignorance of many, these critics should look in the mirror and ask themselves if they are doing their part to stand up for American democracy at this moment of maximum peril—or if they are too busy trying to show off their non-partisan or non-ideological “reasonableness” to do their duty.

Not just those who aspire to be good citizens, but those who aspire to be good Christians, should ask this question of themselves. Christianity is either radical or a bourgeois counterfeit. Where others are choosing silence, complacency, or outright complicity, Colbert is rising to the moment. Are you?


Pope Francis Challenges Profit-Obsessed Capitalism and Our Complacency

As a certain group of right-wing American Catholics continues to promote free market fundamentalism—sometimes very amiably with rhetorical commitments to a (diminished) social  safety net and maybe even with a nod to an increase in the earned income tax credit—Pope Francis has once again affirmed the Church’s fundamental opposition to this ideology (however cleverly marketed) and the idolatry that often drives it.

While right-wing defenders of libertarian economics should be deeply challenged by the pope’s call for an economy of communion (along with over a century and a quarter of formal Catholic teaching), those of us who actually value Church teaching and orthodoxy should also reflect upon our own biases and assumptions. A market mentality permeates much of American culture, including the thinking of many in the center and even on the left. I sincerely doubt that, given my American background, I am immune from certain biases that pull me from identifying the best path to integral human development, global economic justice, and the common good.

It is easy to cast stones at Catholics who (against Church teaching) believe that access to food or healthcare is a privilege to be earned, rather than a right. It is easy to cast stones at those who delude themselves into believing that the economic growth under China’s state capitalism shows the efficacy of free enterprise and small government, or that the Great Depression and Great Recession were caused primarily by excessive government intervention in otherwise virtuous markets, or any other delusions that ideologues cook up while promoting policies that create the throwaway culture. It is much harder to check one’s own assumptions and ensure that we too are not complicit in this culture or guilty of being capitalists first and Christians second.

Here are some highlights of Francis’ speech on Saturday that should challenge all Americans to reflect on what we are doing (or not doing) to build a more just socio-economic system that serves all:

  1. We cannot understand the new Kingdom offered by Jesus if we do not free ourselves of idols, of which money is one of the most powerful.
  2. When capitalism makes the seeking of profit its only purpose, it runs the risk of becoming an idolatrous framework, a form of worship.
  3. Tax avoidance and evasion which, before being illegal acts, are acts which deny the basic law of life: mutual care.
  4. The principal ethical dilemma of this capitalism is the creation of discarded people, then trying to hide them or make sure they are no longer seen.
  5. The economy of communion, if it wants to be faithful to its charism, must not only care for the victims, but build a system where there are ever fewer victims, where, possibly, there may no longer be any. As long as the economy still produces one victim and there is still a single discarded person, communion has not yet been realized; the celebration of universal fraternity is not full.
  6. We must work toward changing the rules of the game of the socio-economic system.
  7. May the ‘no’ to an economy that kills become a ‘yes’ to an economy that lets live, because it shares, includes the poor, uses profits to create communion.

Still Need a New Year’s Resolution? Love More, Better

Social isolation has reached epidemic proportions in the United States. And it’s killing us—quite literally:

Individuals with less social connection have disrupted sleep patterns, altered immune systems, more inflammation and higher levels of stress hormones. One recent study found that isolation increases the risk of heart disease by 29 percent and stroke by 32 percent.

Another analysis that pooled data from 70 studies and 3.4 million people found that socially isolated individuals had a 30 percent higher risk of dying in the next seven years, and that this effect was largest in middle age.

Loneliness can accelerate cognitive decline in older adults, and isolated individuals are twice as likely to die prematurely as those with more robust social interactions. These effects start early: Socially isolated children have significantly poorer health 20 years later, even after controlling for other factors. All told, loneliness is as important a risk factor for early death as obesity and smoking.

Pope Francis has called for a revolution in tenderness and continually called on us to go the peripheries and encounter those who are marginalized, alienated, and vulnerable. The lonely certainly qualify. And this means bursting our secure bubbles and engaging with those whose very existence is often ignored—whether they are homeless or disabled or elderly, those often separated by societal and even physical barriers. A new year offers a new opportunity to challenge ourselves to break from our past lethargy and revive our commitment to living the radical way of Christ.

But the epidemic of loneliness and isolation is also about the breakdown of relationships in what should be our most intimate spheres—romantic relationships and among close friends. The atomization of our lives seems to be accelerating. Many romantic relationships and close friendships are fraying in the face of this radical individualism, others are more distant and superficial. And even those of us who recognize the risks of both individualism and isolation are not immune from perpetuating and deepening them.

The new year offers the perfect time to reflect on the ways you share and receive love:

  • How can you love the people you love even more?
  • Do you have relationships of trust and affection that can grow stronger? How can such relationships be deepened?
  • Do you allow others to love you or do you put up barriers that undermine love, friendship, and intimacy?

An excellent resolution for the new year is to challenge ourselves to love more genuinely and deeply. It might not be easy. It requires vulnerability. If you’ve been burned in past relationships, it might seem safer to keep a comfortable distance. And it’s also true that some have personality types that make the deepening of many relationships exceedingly difficult.

So it’s a challenge, perhaps a difficult challenge, just like many other New Year’s resolutions. But as Pope Francis explains, this is also a great opportunity: “When we experience disappointment or betrayal in important relationships, we come to realize how vulnerable and defenseless we are.  The temptation to become self-absorbed grows stronger, and we risk losing life’s greatest opportunity: to love in spite of everything!”

If you wish to accept this challenge “to love in spite of everything,” here are five aspects of love that you might think about:

  1. Intimacy- Are you learning about each other at the deepest level? Are you willing to share your most important thoughts and emotions? Do you maintain this intimacy despite the pressures of daily life or if you are physically distant?
  2. Presence- Do you take the time to see the other person? To talk to them? Do you think about them and how they are doing? Are your lives intertwined in any way, or are you each trying to maximize your freedom of action and autonomy?
  3. Authenticity- Do you play games with the other person or consider power dynamics? Are you projecting an image or living as your authentic self in their presence? Do you accept them for who they are at their core, affirming their goodness, moving beyond their flaws, and finding joy in their existence?
  4. Empathy- Do you consider the thoughts and feelings of the other person? Are you able to put yourself in their place and understand their actions through this prism? Do you overreact to real mistakes or slights, or even invent slights by assuming the other person is selfish or indifferent to you?
  5. Kindness- Can you be more thoughtful, caring, encouraging, forgiving, gentle, helpful?  Can you do more to seek the good of the other person that you love?

Assad, Iran, Russia: “Are You Truly Incapable of Shame?”

Streets in Aleppo are filled with the bombed, burned, and shot bodies of innocent civilians—the result of the latest atrocities perpetrated by a regime that has killed over 450,000 people with the assistance of its murderous allies. US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power placed these atrocities in their proper historical context:

Aleppo will join the ranks of those events in world history that define modern evil, that stain our conscience decades later. Halabja, Rwanda, Srebrenica, and, now, Aleppo. To the Assad regime, Russia, and Iran, your forces and proxies are carrying out these crimes. Your barrel bombs and mortars and airstrikes have allowed the militia in Aleppo to encircle tens of thousands of civilians in your ever-tightening noose. It is your noose. Three Member States of the UN contributing to a noose around civilians. It should shame you. Instead, by all appearances, it is emboldening you. You are plotting your next assault. Are you truly incapable of shame? Is there literally nothing that can shame you? Is there no act of barbarism against civilians, no execution of a child that gets under your skin, that just creeps you out a little bit? Is there nothing you will not lie about or justify?

Assad and the other architects of mass murder may not feel shame, but the international community should. The Obama administration should. The Vatican should. Everyone who has spent years opposing viable concrete action to protect civilians should. These crimes have played out in real time. I see pictures of slaughtered civilians in my social media feeds every day. No one can claim they didn’t know what was happening. They chose to commit mass murder. And we chose not to act. This should elicit a sense of shame from everyone who has a basic sense of decency or even a minimal commitment to morality.


Will the Bishops Take On the Alt-Right’s Bigotry?

In response to a recent white nationalist conference in Washington DC, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum offered an important reminder and request:

The Holocaust did not begin with killing; it began with words. The Museum calls on all American citizens, our religious and civic leaders, and the leadership of all branches of the government to confront racist thinking and divisive hateful speech.

Will our Catholic bishops and leaders step up to the plate and confront the rising power and vile bigotry of white nationalists and the entire alt-right movement?

This is the type of rhetoric that sparked this response:

According to press reports, Richard Spencer, the leader of the National Policy Institute – a white nationalist think tank – that sponsored the conference, made several direct and indirect references to Jews and other minorities, often alluding to Nazism. He spoke in German to quote Nazi propaganda and refer to the mainstream media. He implied that the media was protecting Jewish interests and said, “One wonders if these people are people at all?” He said that America belongs to white people. His statement that white people face a choice of “conquer or die” closely echoes Adolf Hitler’s view of Jews and that history is a racial struggle for survival.

With the president-elect’s closest adviser, Steve Bannon, playing a key role in strengthening the alt-right, even calling his publication “the platform of the alt-right,” all Catholics must step up to the Holocaust’s Museum’s call and defend our values. Many Catholics were complicit in the Holocaust, the rise of fascist movements, and other mass atrocities. Let’s learn from history and take a stand against this evil, before another step is taken down the slippery slope.


Trump’s Pro-life Plan Includes Millions More Abortions

I support legal protection for the lives of unborn children. A comprehensive, whole life approach to abortion and the defense of human life should include such a commitment. The strategy of electing candidates who promise to appoint or confirm strict constructionist conservative Supreme Court justices is deeply flawed in that regard. Donald Trump confirmed this fact last week:

Lesley Stahl: During the campaign, you said that you would appoint justices who were against abortion rights. Will you appoint– are you looking to appoint a justice who wants to overturn Roe v. Wade?

Donald Trump: So look, here’s what’s going to happen– I’m going to– I’m pro-life. The judges will be pro-life. They’ll be very—

Lesley Stahl: But what about overturning this law–

Donald Trump: Well, there are a couple of things. They’ll be pro-life, they’ll be– in terms of the whole gun situation, we know the Second Amendment and everybody’s talking about the Second Amendment and they’re trying to dice it up and change it, they’re going to be very pro-Second Amendment. But having to do with abortion if it ever were overturned, it would go back to the states. So it would go back to the states and–

 Lesley Stahl: Yeah, but then some women won’t be able to get an abortion?

 Donald Trump: No, it’ll go back to the states.

Lesley Stahl: By state—no some —

 Donald Trump: Yeah.

 Donald Trump: Yeah, well, they’ll perhaps have to go, they’ll have to go to another state.

 Lesley Stahl: And that’s OK?

Donald Trump: Well, we’ll see what happens. It’s got a long way to go, just so you understand. That has a long, long way to go.

Conservative justices will return abortion to the states; it will remain legal in big states like New York and California; inadequate support for pregnant women and young families will leave many women feeling like they must abort their children; and millions will die. This is their best case scenario. Is it not clear that this plan is flawed?

To make matters worse, it is quite possible that the Court could return to Lochner era activism (when minimum wage, child labor, and similar laws were struck down on preposterous grounds) and overturn quite obviously constitutional laws in order to pursue a radical right-wing agenda. The foolishness of the pro-life movement’s subservience to Republican interests will be on full display. And again, this is only if Trump delivers on his promises to the pro-life community.


How to Respond to Trump? Fight for Democracy

Debates are swirling about what the appropriate response is to the election of the willfully ignorant, sexual assaulting, fascist coddling president-elect. The two most compelling arguments I’ve seen argue that our first responsibility is to fight for our democracy and resist reactionary attacks on our institutions and most cherished values.

In the Washington Post, I argued that this election was about our identity as a people and warned:

This election could usher in a new Republican Party that increasingly relies on the ugliest forms of populism and nationalism. It could even redefine the United States as a nation by taking the country down the road of illiberal democracy or even authoritarianism. This isn’t just alarming for Americans who are committed to democracy, civil liberties and the rule of law; it’s also critical moment for the world.

With the selection of the alt-right bigot Steve Bannon as chief strategist to the president, the threat to American democracy and our fundamental rights is clear (not to mention what people in Syria, Afghanistan, Central America, and elsewhere may be facing with an American president who does not believe in supporting freedom, democracy, and human rights).

Jonathan Chait has offered an excellent response to those thinking of simply fleeing: Forget Canada. Stay and Fight for American Democracy.

Never in my lifetime has the United States seen a period of darkness like the one that lies ahead of us. But we have seen periods of darkness before — segregation, McCarthyism, the internment of the Japanese, the Civil War, slavery. The American story is fitful progress punctuated by frequent reversals, some of which appeared at the time like they would last forever. None of them did.

The Trump years will be a horror. When I set out to write my long story in the magazine about Trumpism and the future of the Republican Party, I originally intended to focus on the immediate possibilities that lay before the Republican Party if it could capture full control of Washington. As this scenario grew less likely, I gave it less emphasis, but it is there. The Republicans will pass massive regressive tax cuts; they will take access to medical care from the poor and sick; they will deregulate the financial industry and fossil-fuel emitters.

And that is just the beginning, the best-case scenario. Trump is an impulsive, egotistical bully, intolerant of criticism and dissent and drawn to the ruthless application of power. Many liberals have been warning that American democracy is far weaker than we believed, and this was before any of us imagined a monster like Trump commanding the Executive branch. Trump will shake the Republic to its foundations. And the Republicans will shake it with him. If there is a central point I tried to drive home, it is that Trumpism grows out of a decades-long trend toward authoritarianism as the dominant tendency of Republican politics. I don’t know what American government will look like after four years of Trump — or if it will only last four years, or even if it will only last eight….

The depths of a Trump presidency defy our imagination. It is safe to assume it will not be popular. Trump and his party will probably respond with vicious anti-democratic measures. But fighting for democracy is part of America’s heritage, from abolitionists to suffragettes to the progressive reformers. Maybe you thought that fight was confined to history. It will go on.

In the Washington Post, Leon Wieseltier writes:

There is no economic analysis that can extenuate bigotry. The scapegoating of otherness by miserable people cannot be justified by their misery. Resentment, even when it has a basis in experience, is one of the ugliest political emotions, and it has been the source of horrors. Trump’s road to power was manifestly a foul road, even if it was supported by millions of people. Wisdom is never to be found in numbers. Trump’s success vouches only for his strategy. It says nothing about his probity or his decency. Those Americans who are ashamed that we have elected as our president a man bursting with prejudices and lies are right. Their shame makes America great again….

Having employed divisiveness as his primary instrument, the president-elect now implores us to put an end to our divisions. In the name of post-electoral comity, we are supposed to forget what we know. At this moment, therefore, it is important to affirm the reality, and the inevitability, and even the nobility, of some of our divisions….

The demons that have haunted our society for decades and even centuries, the vile illiberalism that currently disgraces other governments in the West, will now inhabit the White House. Difficult times are giving way to dark times, and dark times require a special lucidity and a special vigilance and a special ferocity about principle. We must not lose our faith in moral progress and in social progress, but we must remember that moral progress and social progress are not linear and unimpeded and inevitable. There will always be reversals and setbacks, because change rattles the world that preceded it. If you demand justice, prepare for instability, and for the exploitation of instability by political reactionaries who weaken the wounded with nostalgia and fantasies of exclusiveness. The struggle for reform is often succeeded by the struggle to repeal reform. Trumpism, insofar as it is coherently anything, is a great promise of repeal. If Trump succeeds in his repeal, then the fight for the repeal of the repeal must begin.

The proper response to Trump’s victory for the average American who believes in democracy and decency is not to flee. It is not to seek some artificial unity with racists, antisemites, and xenophobes, while our norms are dismembered, institutions are attacked, and values are assaulted. The proper response is to resist the imminent grave attacks on the common good. In such an environment, Christianity is either countercultural or counterfeit. Now is not the time for cowardly accommodation, but radical resistance to assaults on human dignity and free democracy. For those who have been lulled to sleep by the stalemates of divided government, now is the time to wake up and fight.